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Old 10-05-2008, 09:58 PM   #1
Samuel Dravis
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I came across a debate between Greg Bahnsen and Gordon Stein earlier that piqued my interest. It is available here [PDF | HTML]. It's titled, "Does God exist?" I'm sure most of you have read discussions on this subject before, both here and in formal debates like this one. However, the thing that differentiates this debate from numerous others on the same subject is that it introduces the concept of presuppositionalism - that is, that various things we believe about morality, logic, and science necessarily entail God's existence. I don't intend to go too deeply into that, however - I'm not well read on it - and I'll limit my comments to what is present in the debate. Bahnsen's opponent is essentially forgettable and I won't bother with his side of the debate.

Bahnsen is the Christian and he starts out by declaring what he is not doing:
  • He is not defending theism; he is defending Christian theism. In my opinion, an excellent move, although there is incredible variety of interpretations in "Christian Theism" as well. Those could be used as an argument against him.
  • He is not interested in subjective views on God's existence, i.e., he acknowledges that what someone believes isn't necessarily what is.
  • Material reasons for belief are not in question here: even if it was shown that being Christian made you live 2x longer than an atheist, that does not affect the truth of one philosophical system or the other.
  • Both Christians and atheists are capable of and have committed moral wrongs. He uses the examples of the Inquisition and French Revolution; while it is arguable that these events were caused by the philosophical beliefs of those person who were involved, that they indeed did these things is not in question.

Originally Posted by Bahnsen, p. 2
"The question is ... whether atheism or Christian theism as philosophical systems are objectively true."
Bahnsen's opening remarks are extremely interesting - to me, the best part of the debate. In particular, his views on evidence for the existence of God (which I'll quote in full here):

Originally Posted by Bahnsen, p. 2-3
1. The nature of the evidence

How should the difference of opinion between the theist and the atheist be rationally resolved? What Dr. Stein has written indicates that he, like many atheists, has not reflected adequately on this question. He writes, and I quote, "The question of the existence of God is a factual question, and should be answered in the same way as any other factual questions."

The assumption that all existence claims are questions about matters of fact, the assumption that all of these are answered in the very same way is not only over simplified and misleading, it is simply mistaken. The existence, factuality or reality of different kinds of things is not established or is confirmed in the same way in every case.

We might ask, "Is there a box of crackers in the pantry?" And we know how we would go about answering that question. But that is a far, far cry from the way we go about answering questions determining the reality of say, barometric pressure, quasars, gravitational attraction, elasticity, radio activity, natural laws, names, grammar, numbers, the university itself that you're now at, past events, categories, future contingencies, laws of thought, political obligations, individual identity over time, causation, memories, dreams, or even love or beauty. In such cases, one does not do anything like walk to the pantry and look inside for the crackers. There are thousands of existence or factual questions, and they are not at all answered in the same way in each case. Just think of the differences in argumentation and the types of evidences used by biologists, grammarians, physicists, mathematicians, lawyers, magicians, mechanics, merchants, and artists. It should be obvious from this that the types of evidence one looks for in existence or factual claims will be determined by the field of discussion and especially by the metaphysical nature of the entity mentioned in the claim under question.

Dr. Stein's remark that the question of the existence of God is answered in the same way as any other factual question, mistakenly reduces the theistic question to the same level as the box of crackers in the pantry, which we will hereafter call the crackers in the pantry fallacy.
This is quite refreshing, actually. I have seen many people - particularly on the internet - who would flatten the ontological map into something similar to scientism, i.e. they would reject the idea that a proposition could have a truth value if it is not scientific. Various people in the past have done this - notably A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth, and Logic and his verificiationism, but also (in a weaker sense) others like Popper who adhere to a principle being the arbiter of scientific truth (falsificationism), which implies that anything falling outside of it is undecidable (see Feyerabend's Against Method for a more developed attack on falsificationism).

Instead, however, Bahnsen realizes that not all factual statements are to be evaluated by the same standard - something that sounds quite obvious on the face of it, but it's easy to lose track when discussing questions like the existence of God.

Now, on to the transcendental argument for God:

Originally Posted by Bahnsen, p. 5
When we go to look at the different world views that atheists and theists have, I suggest we can prove the existence of God from the impossibility of the contrary. The transcendental proof for God's existence is that without Him it is impossible to prove anything. The atheist world view is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience, science, logic, or morality. The atheist world view cannot allow for laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes.
So Bahnsen thinks that there is something special about logic, science, intelligible experience, and morality - something that ties them directly to the Christian God. What might that special something be? Let's see.

Originally Posted by Bahnsen, p. 15-16
The laws of logic are not conventional or sociological. I would say the laws of logic have a transcendental necessity about them. They are universal; they are invariant, and they are not material in nature. And if they are not that, then I'd like to know, in an atheist universe, how it is possible to have laws in the first place. And secondly, how it is possible to justify those laws?

The laws of logic, you see, are abstract. As abstract entities, which is the appropriate philosophical term, not spiritual - entities that Dr. Stein is speaking of - abstract entities - that is to say, not individual (or universal in character). They are not materialistic. As universal, they are not experienced to be true. There may be experiences where the laws of logic are used, but no one has universal experience. No one has tried every possible instance of the laws of logic.

As invariant, they don't fit into what most materialists would tell us about the constantly changing nature of the world. And so, you see, we have a real problem on our hands. Dr. Stein wants to use the laws of logic tonight. I maintain that by so doing he's borrowing my world view. For you see, in the theistic world view the laws of logic makes sense, because in the theistic world view there can be abstract, universal, invariant entities such as the laws of logic. Within the theistic world view you cannot contradict yourself, because to do so you're engaging in the nature of lying, and that's contrary to the character of God as we perceive it. And so, the laws of logic are something Dr. Stein is going to have to explain as an atheist or else relinquish using them.

The transcendental argument for the existence of God, then, which Dr. Stein has yet to touch, and which I don't believe he can surmount, is that without the existence of God it is impossible to prove anything. And that's because in the atheistic world you cannot justify, you cannot account for, laws in general: the laws of thought in particular, laws of nature, cannot account for human life, from the fact that it's more than electrochemical complexes in depth, and the fact that it's more than an accident. That is to say, in the atheist conception of the world, there's really no reason to debate; because in the end, as Dr. Stein has said, all these laws are conventional. All these laws are not really law-like in their nature, they're just, well, if you're an atheist and materialist, you'd have to say they're just something that happens inside the brain.

But you see, what happens inside your brain is not what happens inside my brain. Therefore, what happens inside your brain is not a law. It doesn't necessarily correspond to what happens in mine. In fact, it can't be identical with what is inside my mind or brain, because we don't have the same brain.

As the laws of logic come down to being materialistic entities, then they no longer have their law-like character. If they are only social conventions, then, of course, what we might do to limit debate is just define a new set of laws. and ask for all who want the convention that says, "Atheism must be true or theism must be true, and we have the following laws that we conventionally adopt to prove it," and see who'd be satisfied.

But no one can be satisfied without a rational procedure to follow. The laws of logic can not be avoided, the laws of logic can not be accounted for in a Materialist universe. Therefore, the laws of logic are one of the many evidences that without God you can't prove anything at all.
When Bahnsen is questioning Stein, he finds out some interesting things which are supposed to help his argument:
  • The laws of logic are immaterial.
  • The laws of logic are conventions that are self verifying (says Stein).

Clearly there's something wrong with Stein's view here; how could a law of logic be universal if it's contingent on human conventions? Isn't A=A true always, and not just because every person agrees to it? And if they're merely conventions, why can't Bahnsen simply say he has a different convention? What could justify Stein saying that logic applies to Bahnsen's ideas too, as he clearly wants to apply them to it?

Bahnsen thinks that this failure of Stein's argument opens the door for his God. Since Stein must postulate something universal and immaterial - the laws of logic - to use in his argument, he cannot be using a purely physicalist worldview. And, in order to justify using something so metaphysical as logic, Bahnsen believes that Stein must turn to God for it, given that physicalism cannot possibly offer a justification for metaphysics.

At this point I have to offer my own criticism of Bahnsen's argument. As I said, he thinks that it's impossible to hold onto the laws of logic as universals without believing in his God. There is another way to resolve this problem, however.

In Bahnsen's introduction - that of evidence for God - he quickly came to the conclusion that there are many ways in which we use the word evidence, and not all of them are semantically equivalent, i.e., not all things have the same "kind" of existence, and so the kinds of evidence one would look for are different in each case. E.g, grammatical rules are contingent upon language, so we'd look in English textbooks or simply listen to people talk for evidence of a rule.

Now if we apply similar reasoning to logic, we can come up with a coherent idea that does not require Bahnsen's God in order to justify our use of universals. What would happen if the rules for the use of logic in our language were so that we are trained to say that these always applied?

Let me try to illustrate my point. Suppose there's a stop sign on a street corner. If someone came by on the same street corner next year, would the sign mean the same thing? Next century? At any point of time in the future? Of course; a stop sign always means, "Stop." That's the use of a stop sign.

Let's take a look at what we're doing here with the stop sign, however. When did we learn what a stop sign was? Well, our parents showed us how to act when we see a stop sign - they held us back when we wanted to run across the street. Driver's Ed drilled it through our brains: "FULL! STOP! AT! THE! STOP! SIGN!" We knew what the word "stop" meant perhaps before we knew what a stop sign meant, so we could also draw on our experience from there as well.

The important point about the stop sign is that it's a rule, a rule for behavior. This rule is not independent of humanity, but is rather an extension of how we live our lives. We drive cars; it is dangerous to have intersections without guidelines, we don't accept that amount of danger, therefore there are signs.

I propose that logic is of the same kind of rule as a stop sign: logic is a human endeavor, is defined by humanity, and cannot be meaningfully separated from it. What we mean by logic is shown in how we live and explain what logic is. It is a method whose rules are defined as universal, just as the stop sign means "stop" regardless of whether you know what it means or not - or even whether anyone actually stops at it! But note that this doesn't mean that the meaning of the stop sign is independent of the way of life of those people who use it.

If I say, "A is not B", I am saying a true proposition of logic. This is true universally, not because it is justified by a God, but because it is defined so (and I don't mean someone just came up and defined it, as in a dictionary; people use words in certain ways and in so doing define them). "Not" here means: things that are different are different. How to justify this? We can't respond by saying that someone else (i.e. God) defined them like that, because that would just raise the question: "And why did he...?"

Instead, one should answer the question like this: "What are you talking about? Don't you know what logic is?" For in order to raise the question, you have to be able to ask it, and before you can ask the question, you are taught the meaning of the word, and the meaning of a word is the rules for its use - and there can be a great many such rules, as Bahnsen admitted in the very beginning of his argument. Bahnsen has learned a particular rule - that of attributing to God universals - but not everyone has (in fact presuppositionalism is not a particularly popular area of theology, from what I understand).

In this case, I think, the uses of the word logic are many and varied, but "logic" does not necessarily correspond to the metaphysical idea that Bahnsen proposes. He has "flattened the landscape", so to speak, of the uses of "logic" into a single one - that of his own worldview, and in so doing has presupposed his own argument.

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